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Large-Scale Production of CNT Membranes Enables Synthesis of Carbon-Free Fuels

Mattershift, a startup launched by alumni from MIT and Yale and based in NYC, has accomplished advancement in large-scale production of carbon nanotube (CNT) membranes. The startup is developing the potential of the technology to integrate and isolate individual molecules to produce diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel from CO2 eliminated from the air.

Mattershift Fuel from Mattershift on Vimeo.

Investigations reasserting that the large-scale CNT membranes made at Mattershift match the properties and performance of small prototype CNT membranes reported earlier in the scientific literature were published in the Science Advances journal on March 9, 2018. The paper was the outcome of a partnership between Mattershift and scientists in the labs of Dr. Benny Freeman at The University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon at the University of Connecticut.

For two decades, scientists have demonstrated that CNT membranes exhibit enormous potential for a broad array of applications, such as low-energy desalination of seawater, low-cost synthesis of ethanol fuel, refining of pharmaceutical compounds, accurate drug delivery, and high-performance catalysis for making fuels. The challenges and increased cost involved in producing CNT membranes have restricted them to university labs and have been often quoted as the confining factor in their extensive application. Mattershift’s potential in mass-producing CNT membranes unbinds the ability of this technology.

Achieving large-scale production of carbon nanotube membranes is a breakthrough in the membrane field. It’s a huge challenge to take novel materials like these and produce them at a commercial level, so we’re really excited to see what Mattershift has done here. There’s such a large, unexplored potential for carbon nanotubes in molecular separations, and this technology is just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

Dr. Freeman, Professor of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin

The startup has already reserved its first sales and will dispatch products in late 2018 to be applied in a seawater desalination application that uses the least energy ever shown at pilot scale.

We’re excited to work with Mattershift because its membranes are uniquely tailored to allow salts to pass through our system while retaining our draw solute. We already demonstrated the world’s lowest energy desal process in our pilot plant in the UAE last year, and Mattershift’s membranes are going to allow us to push the energy consumption even lower.

John Webley, CEO of Trevi Systems in Petaluma, California

Three notable developments made this advancement feasible. One is that the cost of carbon nanotubes has been decreased by nearly 100 times in the past decade, with a correlated improvement in their quality. The second is the ever-growing knowledge of the way matter functions in nano-confined environments such as inside the sub-nanometer CNTs, in which molecules move single file at high rates and behave differently when compared to their behavior in bulk fluids. Finally, third is the increase in funding for tough technological startups, which allowed Mattershift to contribute five years of intense R&D advancing its technology.

This technology gives us a level of control over the material world that we’ve never had before,” stated Dr. Rob McGinnis Founder and CEO of Mattershift. “We can choose which molecules can pass through our membranes and what happens to them when they do. For example, right now we’re working to remove CO2 from the air and turn it into fuels. This has already been done using conventional technology, but it’s been too expensive to be practical. Using our tech, I think we’ll be able to produce carbon-zero gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels that are cheaper than fossil fuels.”

Producing fuels by using CNT membranes is originally only one example of a technology called Molecular Factories proposed by Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist, in the 1950s. Molecular Factories function through integration of processes such as purification, catalysis, separation, and molecular-scale manipulation by means of nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) to produce things from molecular building blocks. Each nanotube functions as a conveyor belt that carries out operations on molecules when they pass through, single file, the same way in which factories operate at the macro scale.

It should be possible to combine different types of our CNT membranes in a machine that does what molecular factories have long been predicted to do: to make anything we need from basic molecular building blocks,” stated McGinnis. “I mean, we’re talking about printing matter from the air. Imagine having one of these devices with you on Mars. You could print food, fuels, building materials, and medicines from the atmosphere and soil or recycled parts without having to transport them from Earth.”

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